The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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Things That Could Have Happened, But Didn’t

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

When I was five, my father,
who loved me, ran me over
with a medium-sized farm tractor.

I was lucky though; I tripped
and slipped into a small depression,
which caused the wheels to tread

lightly on my leg, which had already
been broken (when I was three)
by a big dog, who liked to play rough,

and when I was nine, I fell
from the second-floor balcony
onto the cement by the back steps,

and as I went down I saw my life go by
and thought: “This is exactly how
Wiley Coyote feels, every time!”

Luckily, I mostly landed on my feet,
and only had to go on crutches
for a few months in the fifth grade—

and shortly after that, my father,
against his better judgment,
bought the horse I’d wanted for so long.

All the rest of my luck has to do
with highways and ice—things that
could have happened, but didn’t.
~Joyce Sutphen, “My Luck” from First Words

at twenty

I understand catastrophic thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies
play out real-time in the palm of my hand
and I feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to first think disastrously.
That is what I have done for a living:
to always be ready for the worse case scenario
and simply assume it will happen.

Sometimes it does happen
and no amount of wishing it away will work.

When I rise to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do every morning~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death? 
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord
(and we are comforted by this)
but even if it did …
even if it did –
as awful things sometimes do –
we are never left on our own to deal with it.



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Postpone Until Monday

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull
on the indifferent sidewalk, “Do you think,”
I asked, “you could just postpone it
until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?”


The cord that connected us—strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound.


In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
“Okay,” he agreed.

~Ellen Bass “Phone Therapy” from Mules of Love

Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.

The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.

Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody. 

It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets

We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”   

If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us.  We must breathe, we must stay afloat to save the drowning. Too often,  sacrificing our self-care threatens others’ well-being.

A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted.   Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink.  In forty plus years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”),  the work never got easier, only harder and heavier to carry.

I saw suicidal patients every day and am immensely grateful I myself have never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors.  Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours when we should be resting our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.

However, we are trained to respond to our own anxiety from the first day in anatomy class:
“and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”

Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.

I learned those many years ago:
to save another life, I must first preserve my own.

Your bleeding heart, in your hands –
It’s been there a while you’re just now noticing –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to attend to –

Your bleeding heart, let it go –
You feel like it’s hopeless, but you never know –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to mend
~Kim Taylor
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Astonished

It’s an early summer day, going to be a hot one.
I’m away from home, I’m working; the sky is solidly blue
with just a chalk smear of clouds. So why this melancholy?
Why these blues? Nothing I’ve done seems to matter; I
could leave tomorrow and no one would notice, that’s how
invisible I feel. But look, there’s a pair of cardinals
on the weathered table, pecking at sunflower seeds
which I’ve brought from home. They don’t seem
particularly grateful. Neither does the sky, no matter
how I transcribe it. I wanted to do more in this life,
not the elusive prizes, but poems that astonish. A big flashy jay
lands on the table, scattering seeds and smaller birds.
They regroup, continue to hunt and peck on the lawn.
~Barbara Crooker, “Melancholia” from Some Glad Morning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

I lay awake last night worrying over our son and his family’s ten hour overnight flight from Tokyo. Our two young grandchildren arrive today after 30 months of pandemic separation – to them, we are just faces on a screen.

We go soon to collect them from half-way around the world where they said a sorrowful sayonara to grandparents and family there, arriving here to a new life, new language, new everything, with their worldly belongings in suitcases.

From the largest city in the world to our little corner of the middle of nowhere.

I will watch them discover for themselves
the joys and sorrows of this world.
When I look through their eyes,
I will be reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

I do not need to do anything astonishing myself.
Astonishing happens all around me.

I need only notice and cherish it.

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Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.

The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
~Craig Courtney

Through the winter, I feed the sparrows, the woodpeckers and chickadees, the juncos and finches, and yes — even the starlings. They would be fine without my daily contribution to their well-being, but in return for my provision of seeds, I am able to enjoy their spirited liveliness and their gracious ability to share the bounty with one another.

These birds give back to me simply by showing up, without ever realizing what their presence means to me.

How much more does God lay out for me on a daily basis to sustain me so I show up for Him? How oblivious am I to His gracious and profound gifts? How willingly do I share these gifts with others?

Unlike the birds, I could never survive on my own without His watchful care.

When life feels overwhelming, when I am filled with worries, sorrow, regrets and pain, I seek out this God who cares even for sparrows. He knows how to quiet my troubles and strengthen my faith and perseverance, a comfort that extends far beyond sunflower seeds.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…


God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliv’rance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us,
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide In
Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,
May Your love keep us all our days,
May Your love keep us all our days. Amen.
~Craig Courtney

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Who Can Know?

I do not like to think about my life,
one lived too often without original fire.


I would rather walk among the serious trees,
hooded by important weather, by immense silences.


I’d rather unravel the wind’s calligraphies,
letter by letter, and spell myself into the world,


a glittering altar of atoms, all aswirl.
Who can know what will happen to each of us,


as time’s currents bend and assail us,
as gravity pulls us further into ourselves?


Better to be buoyed skyward, to modestly reach out
to the palaver of raindrops, to the silky leaves,


so that the air’s amazement stirs an answering
ripple among my own heavy branches.


Let me lose myself in the star’s mute company,
among the steady wanderers of night


whose eyes ignite a cupola of yearnings.
Crown me with a wreath of stars unmoored


from desire, untampered by this ache
for a blaze beyond the tremor of my fingertips.

~Maurya Simon, “A Thousand Acres of Light” from Cartographies 

I take myself too seriously,
thinking everything in my life must be planned
so I am prepared for what could happen next –

Of course it is impossible
as who can know?

Each day the unexpected happens
if I am willing to recognize it:
the rush of the wind, the drenching of raindrops,
the tingle of the winter sun on my face.

In that moment I might find endless perfection.

Even the thriving among us may lie down this night
and fail to wake tomorrow,
atoms toppled over, leaves shriveled, roots exposed,
no longer needing to breathe
much sooner than planned.

Let me lose myself in that thought:
what is lost here is more than replaced by
the joy of beholding the Face of the Eternal God.

Faire is the heav’n, where happy souls have place,
In full enjoyment of felicitie,
Whence they doe still behold the glorious face
Of the divine, eternall Majestie…

Yet farre more faire be those bright Cherubins
Which all with golden wings are overdight,
And those eternall burning Seraphins,
Which from their faces dart out fierie light;
Yer fairer than they both, and much more bright,
Be th’ Angels and Archangels which attend
On God’s owne person, without rest or end.

These then is faire each other farre excelling
As to the Highest they approach more neare,
Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling
Fairer than all the rest which there appeare,
Though all their beauties joynd together were:
How then can mortall tongue hope to expresse
The image of such endlesse perfectnesse?
~Edmund Spenser

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A Power That Moves Through the World

Usually, after turning out that forgotten barn light, I sit on the edge of the tractor bucket for a few minutes and let my eyes adjust to the night outside. City people always notice the darkness here, but it’s never very dark if you wait till your eyes owl out a little….

I’m always glad to have to walk down to the barn in the night, and I always forget that it makes me glad. I heave on my coat, stomp into my barn boots and trudge down toward the barn light, muttering at myself. But then I sit in the dark, and I remember this gladness, and I walk back up to the gleaming house, listening for the horses.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg from A Light in the Barn

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems.

There is so much about this world I don’t understand – headline news of each day seems to cause more questions and a sense of even deeper mystery. There are times when I feel all my hairs rising in gooseflesh at my privilege of being alive witnessing history as it plays out now, and wondering where it will lead to.

I don’t have to have answers now to appreciate the mystery of the gift given to me each day.

Half a lifetime ago, I was far more confident of the extent of my learned knowledge after so many years in school and training; now I am far more content about knowing there is much I will never understand.

All shall be revealed in the fullness of time.
And time is getting fuller by the minute.

I want to know why too many are taken from us too young, why there is persisting darkness and evil causing us fear and suffering, why we stumble and fall and fail before we can ever consider flying. I want to know why we can’t trust one another or trust God when there are simply things that can’t be known yet.

Most of all I need faith that God has my life and your life in His hands. His power moving through our hearts is real and true and trustworthy even if we don’t know all the answers to our questions yet.

So like sheep, huddled and frightened, we wait for our Shepherd’s voice to tell us what comes next. He leaves the light on for us when we are overwhelmed by the darkness.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: A Dark Blanket of Peace

Well I know now the feel of dirt under the nails,
I know now the rhythm of furrowed ground under foot,
I have learned the sounds to listen for in the dusk,
the dawning and the noon.

I have held cornfields in the palm of my hand,
I have let the swaying wheat and rye run through my fingers,
I have learned when to be glad for sunlight and for sudden
thaw and for rain.

I know now what weariness is when the mind stops
and night is a dark blanket of peace and forgetting
and the morning breaks to the same ritual and the same
demands and the silence.
~Jane Clement from No One Can Stem the Tide

Seven-thirty. Driving northwest out of town,
the snowscape dusky, sky tinted smoky peach.
In the rear view mirror, a bright orange glow
suffuses the stubbly treeline. Suddenly a column
of brightness shoots from the horizon,
a pillar of fire! One eye on the road,
I watch behind me the head of a golden
child begin to push up between the black knees
of the hills. Two weeks out from Solstice, the sun
so near winter it seems to rise in the south.
A fiery angel stands over his cradle of branches.
And what strange travelers come to honor him?
And what gift will I bring to him this day?
~Thomas Smith “Advent Dawn” from The Glory

And he shall be their peace.
Micah 5:5

I tossed and turned last night — my thoughts too busy, my blankets twisted in turmoil, my muscles too tight.  

The worries of the day required serious wrestling in the dark rather than settling silent and forgotten under my pillow after prayer.

Yet, as ever, morning dawns anew and once again I’m comforted by the rhythm of emerging light overwhelming the night. This ritual of starting fresh remembers the promises given to us again and again in His Word.

In the name of peace today, I will get my hands dirty digging a hole deep enough to hold the worries that kept me awake in the night.

And tomorrow, even if I try to remember, I will have forgotten where exactly I buried them.

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”


Peace, peace, peace on earth
and good will to all.
This is the time for joy
This is the time for love
Now let us all sing together
of peace, peace, peace on earth.

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